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The Lion’s Share

“Coffee or tea?” the waiter asked me. “Choose wisely, sir.”
“You’ve been watching too many old movies,” I said, gesturing slightly at the coffee pot.
There might have been the hint of a smile under his prodigious mustache. He adjusted his fez, then poured me a cup saturated with slowly settling grounds.

Through the window, I watched people punting basket-boats on the river. The people of this moiety took their archaisms seriously.

The chair across from me scraped away from the table.
“You don’t look like an academic,” I said.
“I’m not. Here to check you out.” The guy’s voice matched his bulk.
“He needs security?” I asked.
“Right now he does. You ready to go?”
I fished out a pile of metal coins and slapped them down on the table. They actually used physical currency here. Welcome to the grand social experiment, Royce.

Two more guards by the dock. My companion gestured towards one of the boats. The locals called them kufas, after some antediluvian forebear back on Earth. The essential idea hasn’t changed since Mesopotamia. They’re basically a big, flat-bottomed basket, woven from some grassy plant, and then sealed with tar. Uncomfortable to sit in, and slow to pole yourself around in, but the locals didn’t appear to mind.

The safe house was of mud-brick construction, the upper floor hanging out over the stagnant water of a narrow canal. A ladder descended from a hole in the floor. My companion tied the boat to the lowest rung, and up we went.

“You’ll have to excuse all this,” the professor said. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the heat, barely mitigated by a ceiling fan, the surroundings in general, or the security detail.
I said nothing.
“The problem is a mathematical formula, you see,” he said.
“I thought you wanted my advice,” I said.
He paused for a few seconds. “The formula describes a more efficient warp manifold.”

Ah. The manifold is the physical topology, or shape, of a warp drive. The shape directly effects how much energy it takes to travel, and therefore is a crucial factor in the painstaking balancing act between speed, payload size and energy debt. Given that faster-than-light travel makes up the lion’s share of our civilization’s energy requirements, a manifold improvement is a significant deal, and would be exceptionally valuable to any number of parties.

“You planning on selling it to somebody?” I asked.
“That would be a catastrophe,” he said. “It would give them an effective monopoly on trade.”
“So what do you need me for?”
He gestured at the bodyguard. “Word has got out, somehow. I’ve received threats. The university thought it best if I lie low for a while. Which is why I’m hiding in this hole.”

I guessed that authenticity wasn’t for him.
“Why here?” I asked.
“Review Board,” said the bodyguard.

Good point. The Moiety Review Board viewed experimental societies as potential close kin to toxic waste, and kept a hawk’s eyeball on matters.

“Doesn’t the university have rights to your work though?”
“Partially. They’re hoping to license it to many partners. I’m the only one with the details right now though,” he said, tapping his head with one finger.
“And somebody wants an exclusive, and is willing to go to some lengths?”
“Precisely,” he said.
“So again, what do you need me for?”
He sighed. “I can’t decide what to do. Somebody suggested that I talk to you. They said you’re good at fixing things.”

Or usually just breaking them further, I thought.

“Why don’t you just open source it” I asked.
“The threat mentioned that specifically.”
“If you hand it over to them, they’ll have good reason to harm you to prevent anyone else from obtaining it,” I said.
“I know.” He appeared to be on the verge of tears.

“I see,” I said. “Instead of deciding, you want me to find them.”
He said nothing.
“I guess there’s no issue of budget,” I said.
“They’re going to move me somewhere else now.”
The bodyguard nodded at me. Time to go.

Gifts of Time and Plenty

“Why is the glass misty?”
“Because its plain old silica, kiddo,” I replied. “They don’t have a coating to prevent moisture from building up on them.”

The bullet train from the spaceport travelled through dense forest. Rain spotted the windows, which were, indeed, clouding up.

“Were our windows like that when you were a kid?” Bahr asked me.
I pondered for a moment. “I’m not sure. It was a long time ago.”

It was, at that. Relativistic travel takes a toll on continuity. I’m not getting any younger in absolute years, and in real-time I think I’m at least two centuries old. The rare trips home always lead to technological and social surprises, not least of all this unexpected child of mine.

“Are you going to teach them how to make proper windows?”
“Its more complicated than that,” I replied.

I glanced around briefly. There were two other humans at the other end of the car, and a smattering of locals, who probably work at the port.

The locals studiously ignored us. They’re a bit shorter than the average human, wiry-framed, hairy, slow and deliberate of movement, with protruding muzzles.

Humans. Locals. Bovines. I reminded myself firmly of the necessity of political correctness. Its a funny thing; every sentient species calls itself human in its own language. That or something equivalent. Somehow though, its the rude names for each other that always stick. They have some nice ones for us too.

It didn’t really matter if anyone overheard us, I supposed.
“We’re hoping that they’ll open up trade barriers, and we’ll do a technology exchange.”

The train slowed, and we pulled into a glass-and-steel station. One of the locals brushed by me as we gathered our baggage, murmuring something in passing. My translator thought for a few moments, and came up with a best guess: “Despoiler of worlds.” I frowned.

“Why do they hate us?” Bahr asked me.
“We’re bringing them the entire universe,” I said. “They’re still only locally space-faring, and they operate on a labour-oriented economy. We’re going to bring them the cornucopia, the genuine cup o’ plenty.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s always a short term dislocation,” I said. “They’ll hate us for a while, but thank us later.”

A party waited for us outside, with porters, a fleet of cars, a canopy of unfurled umbrellas.

One lady stepped forwards. I vaguely recognized her from a briefing photo, but recalled neither her name nor position with the embassy.

“Ni hao! Nín de xíngchéng rúhé?”
“Salut! The trip was long, but uneventful, thank you.” I replied.

She spoke to the person beside her. “May I introduce you to the new trade attache and his son?”

Trade attache. Economic consultant. I’ve been called worse things, at that. Economic hit man. Bringer of tainted gifts. Destroyer of worlds.

“You bring a treaty?” the ambassador asked me.
“A framework only,” I replied. “We have much negotiating yet to do.”

As we headed for the cars, Bahr looked back, almost wistfully, at the direction we had come.
“Those trees were beautiful,” he said.

The Nature of Addiction

This story is my entry in the LinkedIn SF writer’s group’s October short story contest. It suffers somewhat from an uneven tone, as a result of editing it down to fit into 4,000 characters, and I may eventually revisit it. For now, it stands. The story is a return to the world of Ephis, from my story Apsis in Ephis with Samir. Something in the story touched a few nerves, and I’ve written a few paragraphs of explanation at the bottom.

In Ephis, all of us are foreigners, and many of us actors. We  wear our self-created parts like the masks of Carnival. None more so than I.

There is a network of mirrors that reflects light over from the Other Side, and then shines it down in fiery beams, to light our Ephesian way. One mirror, mounted high overhead on the dome, neatly pinpoints the unconscious bodies of two goons. Their companion lies  somewhere in the gloom of the next flight of stairs down. Continue reading

Plumbing the Id

My entry in the September short story contest on the SF writers group on LinkedIn. The theme for the month was humor. Deliberately trying to write something funny is hard work. The result, a return to the Wodehouse-ian world of Wilbur and Fox, feels slightly forced to me.

“Was that a mouse?” asked Wilbur. He levered himself into a sitting position on the floating, inflatable chair, which subsided somewhat into the water.
“I didn’t see anything,” said Fox. He stood, towel over his arm, beside the small swimming pool.
“It was about this big,” Wilbur gestured expansively, almost upsetting his chair, “and it was chasing Pelly.”
“That cat is afraid of his own shadow,” said Fox. He and the cat had a long-standing mutual dislike for each other. Continue reading

A Matter of Some Gravity

My entry for the August SF short story contest on LinkedIn. The criteria were noise, a tooth or teeth, and a discovery. I attempted to replicate the style of writing of the Campbell-edited magazines from the 50’s. Don’t think I quite succeeded.

The body floated limply in its suit, in the microgravity of the asteroid. Chief Engineer Flood examined the tiny hole in the center of the helmet. “Small meteor?” he asked over his radio. He seemed more curious than anything else. Dangerous work can make people inured to death, but this was just callous, Jason thought.

One of the engineers was examining something along the wall of the shaft. “Looks like a ball bearing or something,” he responded, “Must have been traveling fast though. Went right through him and embedded itself in the wall. Plus, we’re almost a kilometer down the shaft. The angle is completely wrong for a micro-meteorite.” Continue reading

Puppets

The story features possibly the most useless zombie ever. I submitted this story to an open call for authors for an anthology. The editor liked the story, but said the tone was too humorous for the volume (what can I say, I don’t usually write in this genre). Some interesting news came out after I wrote this. More below the story (spoiler avoidance).

We’d driven up from London. The colonel’s hand-delivered summons had procured us an old beat-up Ford and nominally sufficient fuel rations in short order. The army depot had offered us a driver as well, but I didn’t have much opportunity to get behind the wheel, and had therefore declined the favour. The drive had been uneventful, thankfully, despite Charlies’ known predilection for practical jokes.

The facility sat on the edge of a small, rustic village, and had clearly been intended to appear as unobtrusive from the air as possible. There was a small gatehouse at the end of a long drive, situated under the canopy of an oak tree, and then further camouflaged with netting.

We were dressed in mufti, so the guards at the gate made us exit the vehicle and searched both us and the car thoroughly, before calling the building using a bakelite hand-cranked field-phone, to check our bona fides.

The building itself appeared to be a beautiful old pile from the outside, its facade covered with ivy that almost completely obscured the blacked-out windows. Continue reading

The Hermit

I wrote this a while back. Submitted it to Clarkesworld and then AE. Alas, both rejected it. The positive side is that I can now post it here. This is an attempt at writing something more down-beat. It didn’t really come together the way I’d intended though. Let’s just call it an experiment.

There’s a message waiting for me in the com shed. I’d hauled the remaining computers and communication gear there when everyone left. Small flat-panel satellite receiver bolted onto the corrugated metal roof. Still have enough juice for the generator for another year or two. Not sure what I’ll do when that runs out. If I’m still around then.

I pick up my headset and call them back. Reception is good this time of day. The satellite network isn’t too bad, most of the time, but it does have some gaps, and the station isn’t directly overhead at the moment.

“Hey, its our local hermit,” somebody says, answering my call. “Hang on, I’ll go get Zhaan. I think I saw her around here a few minutes ago.” I close my eyes for a while and wait. Continue reading